Jun 21, 2006

OY, the future of the Jewish people?

Never before have I read a more absurd article than what I just read. I've created a filter on my Google News so I have a section that is purely "Jewish News." It's religious, secular, historical in nature and usually it's someone complaining about Israel. Today, however, there was a column about how we must offer a secular conversion in Judaism. You've got to be kidding me.

Secular conversion? When I think of secular conversion, I think of those who adapt certain aspects of a people and live their life in that manner and are happy as clams with it, meanwhile being shunned by the people of which they took mannerisms from. While I'm not about to claim that Jews are made up of more than a religion and a nation and are a full-fledged race, there's arguments there that are legitimate in some ways. But secular conversion? It's like trying to convert to ... gosh, I don't know ... be Chinese, but refuse to become a Buddhist (a SLIGHT generalization there, though). You can't suddenly decide one day that you really like Chinese history and the language and everything and then just be like 'BAM! I'm Chinese!' It beckons the many times that white people often have confused themselves with black people and live a life of African tradition and lifestyle. It just doesn't work that way, or does it?

Am I being simpleminded? Should there be no limitations? Is secular conversion to Judaism completely logical? I guess I'm not the one to be the end-alls judge here, but it just seems idiotic. I understand that there is more to being Jewish than just the religion, but I also understand that the Jewish people are the Jewish people because of a rich religious identity. The woes of rabbis and Jewish leaders is that nowadays Jews are more secular than ever, but show me a Jew who doesn't have an every-so-often desire for the smell of shabbat candles or the sound of the shofar. Even the most secular Jews pull the "twice-a-year" shtick for High Holidays and Passover.

If you convert to Judaism via a purely secular route, what does that mean? You read a lot of books by Jews? You really dig the fall of the Second Temple? You're fond of those cool little beanies that Jews wear? You really, really love Jewish cuisine? What does it mean? How do you define someone who is "converted" via a secular route?

It just DOESN'T make sense. But enlightened am I, as I start to read an article in Commentary Magazine that highlights the following fact: "For the most part, Jews have always understood that the two sides of this dual identity—the religious and the ethnic/national—are inextricably intertwined. As between the two, indeed, there are striking examples of a precedence being given to the dimension of peoplehood."

But more on that article later.


Alex said...

I would consider my father to be a convert to secular Judaism, if such a thing exists.

The last time that he claimed to be an adherent of any particular religion, it was Buddhism and that was pretty casual and a long time ago. He doesn't talk about his beliefs much, but as I understand them, they're perhaps compatible with fringeReconstructionism

From time to time, he uses the word "we" to talk about Jewish issues, takes part in our family seders and bar/bat mitzvot, but of course never goes to Temple.

He took a Hebrew name as part of my brother's baby-naming ceremony, stomped on a glass at his wedding to my mother, and is obsessed with the music of two secular Jews, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Does he claim to be be an adherent of any branch of the Jewish faith? No. But as far as belief, practice, family, culture, and self-identity, I don't see how my father differs from other "secular Jews."

Nina said...

I disagree with your response, but I think that's because we understand "Judaism" very differently. Judaism is a religion, yes, that unites people who believe in G-d and offers a rich set of religious customs and rituals. However, the majority of North American Jews do not engage with the Jewish religion at all: they never attend shul, are staunch atheists, and want nothing to do with organized religion. And yet, their Jewish identity is still really important to them: it's an inheritance, there are a whole few of Jewish family traditions that one can enjoy with no belief in God (seders, occasional Friday candle lighting, hannukah lighting, being the most popular). Their Jewishness is also something that they *can't* get rid of, that they have no *choice* about, so it grows on you like that weird birthmark on your right hand. Also, nothing solidifies a secular Jew's Jewish identity faster than witnessing anti-semitism or experiencing "otherness" due to his/her ancestry.

All this to say, a significant portion of American Jews are effectively practicing "secular Judaism." The statistics that I have seen indicate that a majority of Jews relate to Judaism in a totally non religious way.

So it is somewhat ironic that those who wish to join the Tribe CANNOT join the form of Judaism practiced by the majority of American Jews. They have to be observant, at least in so far as they have to have regular contact with rabbis and attend shul often enough to be given the go ahead. Again, this seems funny because the majority of American Jews do not interact with rabbis AT ALL and have never entered a shul.

But that's how it works.

I'm not saying it should work differently, just that it's ironic and a little strange.

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